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A lot of people are giddy over the news that Microsoft bought LinkedIn for $26 billion. Investors are thrilled at the hefty boost in the stock price, while salespeople dream of connecting their Outlook and LinkedIn accounts to make their jobs easier.
Amid all the conversation, there’s one thing that email marketers, particularly those on the B2B side, need to think about: With this purchase, Microsoft just became one of the largest data houses, joining ranks with Acxiom, Dun & Bradstreet, and Experian, but with a twist.
Microsoft is also a data house with inbox statistics on activity through its Outlook email application. This raises many questions about privacy, data management, and how comfortable end users of both Microsoft products and LinkedIn are with the company knowing so much about them.
Although the acquisition has advantages for everyone, the bigger issue is that we now have one company with active access to individual usage on both the B2B and consumer sides.
Microsoft as a B2B powerhouse
Data accuracy has always been challenging for B2B marketers because people job-hop so often. They wonder: Is this person still at the same company? Am I emailing the right person?
B2C data, on the other hand, is rich because of a constant influx of updated and accurate data through publicly available sources, such as home address or presence of children in the home.
The LinkedIn acquisition gives Microsoft highly accurate data available daily about users connected to LinkedIn and can identify Microsoft users and their daily active usage.
LinkedIn isn’t a perfect source of business intelligence – it still relies on people to self-report their resumes and accomplishments, with no checks for accuracy or timeliness. But as the No. 1 business social network, it has high member engagement and trust.
Ramifications for data privacy
Here’s the big question I expect many people to ask: What does Microsoft know about me, and how will they use it?
Privacy laws in the United States, Canada, the European Union, and elsewhere have focused on consumers over business. We haven’t seen the same level of discussion on B2B data protection. The Microsoft acquisition should make that issue bubble up to the top as we talk about what data protections the B2B population has or expects.
I expect to see discussions center on whether Microsoft will need to start asking us for permission to access their our data and to leverage it for uses that we haven’t expressly approved.
Certainly, connecting LinkedIn to Microsoft apps, especially Outlook, offers many advantages to users, such as connecting our LinkedIn contacts to our Outlook address book and using Microsoft’s spam-fighting power to reduce overly aggressive lead prospecting on the network.
Still, time will tell whether these advantages outweigh the privacy concerns, both among users and among government regulators.
Knocking down information silos
Remember, too, that Microsoft owns the search engine Bing, which gives it access to a wealth of consumer search data.
How does Microsoft intend to use consumer data in conjunction with its B2B data? Will the company be able to pinpoint the person who’s a senior vice president at XYZ Co. and also enjoys skiing and rafting in Colorado?
Until now, all of this information has been siloed. Now, Microsoft will own enough data to associate to individuals on the consumer level via their LinkedIn profiles.
Most people keep this information private. I have social channels for friends only, not work people. I have business personas and private personas. Now Microsoft can merge those two personas, but I better be able to give permission for that.
Will LinkedIn use suffer?
One last consideration: Microsoft’s access to LinkedIn data could lead to degradation of information on the network if people pull back because they don’t want their LinkedIn data mixed with their consumer-level information. As a social network, LinkedIn’s data is only as good as its users want it to be.
One way to avoid this is for Microsoft to state up front how it will protect user privacy, what LinkedIn data it will use, and what data is off limits. User trust and confidence are paramount. I’ll be interested to hear what Microsoft has in mind.
Ryan Phelan is Vice President of Marketing Insights at Adestra. He was recognized as one of the top 30 digital strategists in 2013 by OMI. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Email Experience Council (email arm of the Direct Marketing Association) Member Steering Board and is a member of the ESPC.
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